New York Philharmonic/Maazel Gabriela Montero

Symphony No.5 in B flat, D485
Variations for Orchestra, Op.31
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
La valse

Gabriela Montero (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 23 March, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

With Lorin Maazel on the podium and Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero making her debut appearances with the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra presented a programme that combined two romantic favourites with two early twentieth-century masterpieces. This was the second of four performances.

Schubert’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most charmingly melodic works in the symphonic repertory, and Maazel shaped its melodies lovingly with subtle variations of volume and tempo. He evoked warm and rich playing from the strings, nicely balancing their sound with the small wind section (a single flute with pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns). Maazel brought out the strong influence of Mozart on Schubert’s music, particularly in the third movement Minuet, playing its delightful trio rather slowly and gracefully.

Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra is one of the principal masterpieces of serial music. Although its atonalism was revolutionary, Schoenberg envisioned this work as continuing the German-Viennese tradition that included such predecessors as Brahms and Mahler. This connection with the musical past is made explicit in the introductory section by the trombone’s intonation of the four notes that spell BACH in German notation. After the introduction, the cellos announce the principal theme – one of serialism’s most famous tone rows – after which nine variations lead up to an extended finale.

Schoenberg scored Variations for a large orchestra, including a full range of percussion instruments, a brass section that includes three trumpets, four trombones and a tuba, and an unusually large wind section with four each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns as well as a bass clarinet, with players also doubling piccolo, English horn, E flat clarinet and contrabassoon. Schoenberg uses this enormous palette to create vivid and colourful instrumental combinations which Maazel’s players projected with precision and power. There were many opportunities for solo instrumentalists to shine and Maazel kept the piece surging forward, leading the orchestra unerringly through a wide range of dynamic and rhythmic changes.

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody was given a sparkling performance by Gabriela Montero. She demonstrated dazzling technique, tearing through the most rapid passages with apparent ease, and her sensitive phrasing brought out the lyrical and romantic aspects of the work. Montero did not disappoint in the famous eighteenth variation, caressingly voicing the theme (an inversion of Paganini’s 24th Caprice for violin, on which the Rhapsody is based), and then providing counterpoint as the theme is passed on to the violins.

La valse is arguably Ravel’s masterpiece. Although he did not follow his contemporary Schoenberg down the path to atonality, in La valse he undermines the work’s tonal stability to represent the collapse, brought about by World War I, of the milieu of Hapsburg Vienna where the waltz was king. Maazel gave the work a spectacular performance, bringing out Ravel’s broad range of orchestral colors. In shaping the work’s musical phrases Maazel took considerable, but appropriate, liberties with tempos and dynamics, at one point seeming to restrain physically a downbeat trying to escape from his baton. The result was a dramatic structure that impelled the listener from start to finish, first capturing the gaiety of the waltz’s heyday and later the tragedy of the war’s destruction of Vienna’s – and, indeed Europe’s – social fibre, building ultimately to a crashing conclusion.

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